(Field Hymns, 2014, reissue)
It’s amazing what’s been filmed and released over the decades, and it’s equally amazing how much of it is lost to history or thrift store bins. Of course therein lies the bases of multitudes of “cults,” film enthusiasts who pride themselves in seeking out and viewing (or owning) the most underreleased and underdistributed (often for good reason) movies in order to one-up their fellow cinephiles. I’m sure tons of you reading this (look at me, assuming tons of readers!) are at least familiar with the sight of stacks of used VHS tapes at thrift stores or yard sales. And, if you’re like me, you’ve perused those stacks, if not with intent to buy, then at least with intent to learn. I grew up in the 1980s, you grew up in the 1980s (again, assuming), let’s all have a big nostalgia party for used VHS tapes.
Because there’s something about them, right? Something incredibly of the moment in their graphic design, before any hack with Creative Suite and a lot of time could design a movie poster or record sleeve on a home computer. The covers are works of art, masterpieces that perfectly capture the look and feel. Indeed, the presentation suggests the qualities of the film within (if not the film’s actual quality), and before you’ve watched a minute, you know what the movie’s going to look like, feel like, and sound like. That’s the beauty – you can judge these tapes by their covers.
But I can’t talk about movies here without talking about some music, specifically Field Hymns’ 3x cassette box set release of some of synth sculptor Yves Malone’s most, er, revelatory and inviting work. I choose those adjectives carefully, because the films Malone has soundtracked, and three of whose scores are presented here in full, don’t exactly warrant those descriptions. But, it’s exciting that after twenty-five years, the music, untethered from its filmic images, conjures far deeper and wider appreciation than the movies ever likely could, even in some form of cult setting. It’s probably not hard to outclass such fare as Abysscoteque (“There is a killer stalking the streets of Columbus tonight, and he’s wearing his deathing shoes!”), The ECHO People (“Dax Williams is a hunted man”), and Zenith City (“In a world so violent that even killer criminals have bodyguards, only a woman has the moral authority to clean the Lord’s house: The Liquidator”).* But I haven’t seen these movies, so I can’t make the definitive call on that.
*All quotes taken from the backs of the films’ VHS boxes.
If you have somehow seen these movies and love them, that’s another conversation, one best left for our resident movie geek Matt. In fact, he may have seen some of these. Regardless, I’ve embedded all the box art here, so you can see what I mean – you can’t tell me you don’t know how these movies are going to look and sound:
Fantastic, right? From a specific time and place indeed. Malone’s soundtrack work on these films has been available, fortunately, in electronic format on his bandcamp, so the music at least isn’t lost to time – it’s not like Field Hymns is resurrecting Malone, just giving him a physical release nudge. It’s almost too appropriate that the box set comes on tape, just like these crazy freaking films will likely only ever see the light of day on VHS – that is, until someone pays for the rights to distribute them. I’m not holding my breath.
Anyhow, Malone clearly draws inspiration from John Carpenter’s early horror soundtrack work (see, especially, Halloween) as well as Howard Shore’s work on Scanners, meaning these releases are filled with evocative synth passages and soundscapes. And since I haven’t seen any of these films, I can’t tell you how well they fit with the action. It doesn’t matter, the soundtracks are excellent as separate entities, and you can imagine any gritty 1980s city – New York’s a good one, sure, or somewhere in Italy (in fact, there’s a definite European-ness to the vibe, even though Malone is based in San Francisco) – as the setting.
There’s not a huge difference between the three soundtracks. Abysscoteque may play more suspenseful, with tenser rhythms and attitude (see “Death Wears Soft Shoes,” “Hell and 36th”). The ECHO People clearly has (as it should) a more sci-fi vibe, though “Eyeball Funk” and “The Professional Glide” come off as tracks that may have inspired the entire chiptune genre. (Well, obviously, if Nintendo had come out a decade or so later…) Zenith City has a more ethereal quality to it, but the timbre matches that of the other films and the headspace is clearly the same.
Malone does a good job, though, of setting himself apart, even though his inspirations are fairly straightforward. He doesn’t wallow in easy nostalgia, and instead has crafted albums of material that sound fresh today, even though they were recorded in the 1980s. There’s a resurgence afoot in experimental synth music, and even if Malone never records another note, the wide digital release of these albums (as well as the box set, although it’s limited to 75 copies [get one now!]) should already render him as more than a footnote. It’s a great service to fans of the genre that these soundtracks are seeing the light of a distributed day.
RIYL: John Carpenter, Howard Shore’s Scanners soundtrack, Perturbator, Umberto, Gianni Rossi